Barbecue has taken off in Washington. When I arrived in late 1974, the only way to get good barbecue was to make it yourself, as I did annually on Independence Day, or to head South. “Barbecue” places cooked with ovens or pots rather than over brick pits fired with hickory. Even at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the cafeteria initially served things like Bison with Chutney on a Brioche Roll and, even worse, “Lexington Barbecue” with a thick sweet sauce. Sheesh!
In just a few years, since 2018, really, the desert has bloomed! There is genuinely good barbecue in the Washington area at places you wouldn’t be ashamed to take a friend from Texas or Tennessee, enough to make a list of “Best Places” with a clear conscience.
Rather than listing them 1-5, I’ll sort them by category. Pork shoulders and beef brisket and pork ribs are entirely different foods, like apples and oranges, only tastier. How would you create a list of the best noodle-based dishes? You can’t really rank, say, a brisket place against ribs place.
Most barbecue places in the Washington area cook brisket, but no one does it as well or as consistently as 2fifty (originally 2fifty Texas). When Daniel Vaughn asked, “Has Texas Barbecue peaked?” he might have been thinking of 2fifty. Debby Portillo and Fernando Gonzales, along with Debby’s father, Samuel, created a place that serves the best brisket not only in Washington, but well beyond. They also grind and cook the best sausages around, and they do just about everything else well.
But the brisket is their true glory. And to think, it was in 2019 that as recent immigrants, they started a pop-up on Sundays in a pizza place with their big custom smoker outside. Now they have a permanent location, a space in DC at Union Market, and they’ve taken over that pizza place. 2 fifty now has two humongous smokers that stay busy to meet the demand.
Ruthie’s All Day is another place at which I’ve uniformly had brisket to be proud of. Matt Hill has brisket down pat. Ruthie’s is a full service restaurant, where you can get a range of wood-grilled meats and fish, from steaks to octopus, and just about anything else you want. Managed expertly by Ron Sonderman, Ruthie’s provides a broad spectrum of delicious and meticulously prepared meals, well, All Day. Nancy loved their salmon, and my friend Al Hudson was just bragging on their shrimp, and their biscuits … but don’t forget the brisket.
Joe and Mandy Neuman started Sloppy Mama’s with a food truck in 2014, and moved to a former Pizza Hut in Arlington in 2018. I weep for the years I lost before I heard of them. Sloppy Mama’s was the first place in the Washington area to cook exclusively with wood (oak), and the Neumans have as a good claim to making the best pork barbecue in town as anyone — possibly the best claim.
But Sloppy Mama’s does much more. They have a fine moist brisket, very good sausage and turkey, and I once lucked upon a Daily Special, sensational barbacao that could make burnt ends weep with envy.
Sloppy Mama’s competition for best pork comes from the Federalist Pig’s Fedmobile. The Federalist Pig folks have a brick and mortar location in the Adams Morgan section of DC (as well as other well regarded non-barbecue places), but the barbecue at their stationary food truck in suburban Hyattsville is head and shoulders higher. The Fedmobile and its wood-fired cooker sit in a parking lot, along with some picnic tables, and I’m convinced that cooking with wood is what makes the difference.
Most recently, I had a big pork sandwich with the best Eastern North Carolina sauce in town that you could make money selling in North Carolina. Hats off to Chef Rob Sonderman and co-owner Steve Salis. They own other highly regarded restaurants, but Washington owes them a special debt of gratitude for that wood burner.
I haven’t said anything about ribs. Just about everyone offers ribs, but none can top the big meaty ribs at Rolling Rib Part II in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. They’re cooked over hickory, just as ribs should be. It gives the tender meat a great bark and a lovely smoke-and-pork flavor. Ivory Davis, Jr,. and Ivory III know what they’re doing.
Two important things: order ahead. If you walk up, the wait can approach an hour. I can spend an hour chatting with other customers, and Nancy can wait for her delicious smoked chicken while sitting in the car reading. Your patience may differ. And don’t try to order after November 6, or you’ll have to wait until March to get your order. If you want the best ribs during the winter months, you have to steal just across the DC Metropolitan Area boundary to tiny Mechanicsville in Southern Maryland. The tiny Smokehouse BBQ Shack there offers big, meaty ribs with a good oak wood flavor, and the best Pit Beef. Paul Thompson and Melinda will keep you fed and feeling like locals.
So here’s to the growing Washington barbecue scene. At this rate, I’ll be able to do a legitimate Top 10 list in no time.
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2fifty, https://www.2fiftybbq.com, 4700 Riverdale Road, Riverdale Park, MD
Ruthie’s All Day, https://www.ruthiesallday.com, 3411 Fifth Street South, Arlington, VA
Sloppy Mama’s, https://www.sloppymamas.com, 5732 Lee Highway, Arlington, VA
Federalist Pig Fedmobile, https://www.federalistpig.com, 5504 Baltimore Pike, Hyattsville, MD,
Rolling Rib, Part II, https://www.therollingrib.com 9423 Marlboro Pike, Upper Marlboro, MD
Smokehouse BBQ Shack, https://www.facebook.com/Smokehouse-BBQ-Shack-1965350817113067/, 29084 Three Notch Rd, Mechanicsville, MD